Richard Fidler rfidler at cyberus.ca
Mon May 9 18:16:50 MDT 2005

New Left Review 32, March-April 2005

Yang Lian on Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao, Zhongguo nongmin diaocha [Survey 
of Chinese Peasants]. A catalogue of the iniquities visited on rural 
China as the CCP safeguards the ‘investment environment’ of the coastal 
cities, at the cost of the countryside. Impoverishment and extortion of 
40 per cent of the world’s peasants, in a survey suppressed by the PRC 



A growing literature in recent years has documented the disparity 
between rural and urban living standards in China, and the deteriorating 
situation of the country’s 900 million peasants. Li Changping’s 
bestselling Telling the Prime Minister the Truth, He Qinglian’s 
Modernization’s Pitfall and other pathbreaking works have explored the 
social costs of China’s headlong economic development. Intellectual 
journals and the popular press alike have devoted acres of space to the 
crisis in the countryside. Amid this ferment, Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao’s 
Survey of Chinese Peasants stands out for its vivid narratives of 
peasant life and for the real voices of the toilers that speak from its 
pages. Not only does it name the names, one after another, of the petty 
local tyrants whose abuses and brutalities make these agricultural 
labourers’ lives a living hell. The Survey also raises the underlying 
political question of how this situation came about.

Chen and Wu—they are husband and wife—both come from peasant 
backgrounds, in Anhui and Hunan Provinces respectively, although they 
have made their careers as writers in the city. Wu had written warmly of 
her village childhood in an earlier essay, ‘Cherishing a Faraway Place’, 
while Chen, a novelist, had written on environmental questions. On 1 
October 2000 they set out from Hefei, the provincial capital, some 500 
miles south of Beijing, to explore the conditions of peasant life 
throughout the fifty-plus counties of Anhui, from the floodplains of the 
River Huai to the Yangtze Valley, travelling by bus or even on foot to 
reach the remotest villages. They describe the New China from below, 
documenting mud-hut hamlets where average annual earnings amount to 270 
yuan, barely $30 a year; where the toilers depend on giving blood to 
make a living; where, with a carbootful of onions selling at 2 yuan, 
less than 25 cents, the peasants who grew them would explain that they 
could not afford to eat any themselves. And at the same time, the brand 
new, two-storey houses of the village cadres, their cars, mobile phones, 
their growing retinues, all needing salaries, bonuses, good meals and 
office space that must be paid for by taxes extracted directly from the 
peasantry. They show that, beneath the soaring new skyscrapers, the 
spreading highways, the luxurious nightclubs and Karaoke bars and the 
thundering Formula 1 racing track, there lies a foundation of flesh and 
blood. The ‘silver coins’ whose jingling lights up the brightly coloured 
coastal cities are forged from the sweat and toil of hundreds of 
millions of peasants. This is the dark side of the legendary Chinese 


The problems of the countryside are often discussed as though they had 
nothing to do with the central leadership, but were purely a matter of 
local corruption. Any attentive reader of the Survey will learn that the 
super-exploitation of the peasantry is a deliberate policy choice on the 
part of the Chinese authorities. Protests in the cities are far more 
threatening for them and are far more likely to get national and 
international media coverage, resulting in a negative impact on the 
‘investment environment’. The West shares the same agenda—indeed, 
Western capitalists fear China falling into ‘instability’ even more than 
the Chinese Communist Party does. They need the authoritarian rule of 
the Party to safeguard their billions of dollars of investments, and for 
this reason are prepared to shut their eyes to any crimes it may commit 
against its own people, first delinking human-rights violations from 
trade and now keeping silent about the numerous bans on critical works 
and the suppression of the Fa Lun Gong. The wealth created by the blood 
and sweat of Chinese peasants is extracted by corrupt officials or sent 
abroad, via Beijing’s use of their pitiful but numerous savings to buy 
us Treasury bills, to ensure that Western stomachs can continue their 
unending consumption.

Nor does the new Chinese elite show any concern for the plight of the 
peasants. When I wrote, in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square, that ‘The 
same people weeping now will soon start laughing at those who cannot 
laugh’, I had little idea of how quickly the words would turn into 
reality. Many of those who went through the hardships of being sent down 
to the countryside, and once fought fiercely against political 
oppression, have changed their stance over the last few years. It is not 
that they are unaware of the suffering of Chinese peasants, nor that of 
workers being made redundant, or residents forced to move to clear land 
for developers. But perhaps the conflicting desires became too 
burdensome for them; or they convinced themselves that nothing in their 
lives would, or could, ever be worth more than the title, car and house 
that the Party had bestowed; and that the quickest way to release the 
pressure of inner anxiety was simply to accept the status quo. Having 
done that, what would stop one from going further, climbing all the way 
up the ladder of power and playing an active role in the battle to 
redistribute social wealth? Of all the successes of the Party, number 
one is the creation of this breed of thoroughly shameless ‘idealists’. A 
close second are those honourable ‘sea turtles’ who know all about world 
economic trends and who, having suffered from fierce competition abroad, 
are returning to China’s shores to flaunt themselves in official 
circles, foreign passports hidden in their pockets. Their noisy talk of 
patriotism and heavy hints about ‘descendants of famous ancestors’ 
cannot conceal their true identities as soulless sales assistants for 
multinational brands. Others, waving the international hard-currency 
banner of post-colonialism, condemn with great moral indignation the 
injustices between rich and poor countries and the iniquities of the 
wto, while keeping silent about the happenings under their own eyes.

Yet if the Chinese authorities succeed in imposing their ‘order’ on the 
peasantry, they will only be hastening the coming agricultural crisis. 
As the Survey puts it:

China’s agriculture has been stagnant for years. In 2003, grain 
production levels were lower than they had been in 1990, while peasants’ 
per capita average farming income has fallen by 6 per cent since 1997; 
given the rising costs of health and education, their real purchasing 
power has dropped still further. Rather than attempting to raise rural 
living standards and minimize the divisions between industry and 
agriculture, the central authorities are continuing to drive them down. 
The granaries stand empty and foodstuffs are increasingly being 
purchased abroad. The vast new consumer market remains a figment of 
Western capitalist dreams: over half the Chinese population falls into 
the World Bank’s ‘Fourth World’ category, with the per capita purchasing 
power of the lowest-income countries. Thanks to the greed and 
short-sightedness of its leaders, China is entering the world economy 
with one hand tied behind its back.

full: http://www.newleftreview.net/NLR26606.shtml

More information about the Marxism mailing list